Michael Lock Talks About the Future of Flat Track Racing

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As discussed previously on Asphalt & Rubber, flat track racing in the United States will have a comprehensive makeover in 2017. The series will be rebranded as the American Flat Track Series, and the calendar expanded to 18 rounds. 

At the Superprestigio in Barcelona last weekend, the CEO of the American Flat Track series, Michael Lock, sat down with Asphalt & Rubber to discuss the reasoning behind the changes.

The expat Englishman came to flat track with a unique perspective; that of an outsider. He was an Englishman abroad, and brought fresh eyes to the problem of trying to grow flat track racing once again.

The single biggest change is to simplify the structure of the championship with the GNC1 class now just for twin-cylinder engined bikes, with the GNC2 class using the smaller singles.

The switch was motivated by a desire to simplify the sport, and make it more accessible for fans and manufacturers. The rule structure meant that riders have raced single and twin-cylinder machines throughout the season in the past.

This meant that we saw factory Harley Davidson riders race on Honda’s or Kawasaki’s on the shorter tracks.

“Not coming from a flat track background means that I’d look at a situation and say that something wasn’t quite right, whereas people in the sport would say ‘we’ve done it this way for years.'”

“We had a situation where there were two classes in the sport – GNC1 and GNC2 – except they all race the same machines. That was very difficult for me to understand.”

“At the first race I attended, I was really excited to see the XR’s because they’re a legendary bike that have dominated their sport for 40 years. But I got there and saw they weren’t racing, so I thought that maybe they’d race the next night…or there was another paddock for them.”

“It took me half the night to understand that I wouldn’t see them, and instead I’d be watching 450 dirt bikes.”

“It was wrong for me to see the likes of Brad Baker, a factory Harley Davidson rider, racing a Honda. I knew from my time on the OEM side of affairs that this was a kiss of death to OEM involvement in the sport.”

“So, for 2017 the first thing that we’re changing is to make the GNC1 class into the American Flat Track Twins, and it does exactly what it says on the tin. From short tracks to miles you’ll be riding a twin.”

“When we sat down with our paddock advisory group – a group of elder statesmen of the paddock – I asked them what was the problem with racing twins all year round.”

“Their response was ‘the twins on a short track will look silly, and it won’t be a spectacle, also you don’t want to race the twins at Peoria either because it’s already scary on the singles.’ But for me the idea of separating the classes was good enough that I thought it was important to find a solution to the problem.”

Being able to streamline the classes and have riders ride the same bike for the full season will make it easier for fans to identify with teams and riders and also allow manufacturers to build their brands in the series.

This is obviously crucial with the return of Indian to the fold in 2017 and manufacturer interest from Europe for the future.

“Next year we’ll have six full factory riders from Harley Davidson and Indian, it’s the first time we’ve ever had so many. In the future there’ll be more riders with OEM’s that haven’t been announced yet.”

“We’re exploring ways to show manufacturers that the audience for flat track isn’t 100,000 people that will go to events, but rather that the millions that watch the races on the internet are worth marketing to. There may not be interest from Harley Davidson to target the Brazilian fans of flat track, but is it attractive to KTM, Honda or someone else? Hell yes it is.”

“That brings us to a new challenge, where I don’t look to speak to Honda America instead I want to speak to Honda [Japan], show them that we’ve got an American product that is being sold worldwide, and ask them are they interested in getting involved?”

“There are new opportunities in the future and we need to be smart enough to identify them and address them.”

“I went over to Europe in the summer, and went to England, Italy and Germany to do a sales job on flat track. I asked them for an hour of their time to talk about flat track and give them some information on the series.”

“I wanted to ask them if there was a place for it in their global vision and we had a fascinating meeting with BMW. They have had no historical interest in flat track but they’re very interested in the hipster generation!”

“There’s a side of our series that is about the social aspects of bike building, rather than just the performances side, and we know that the market is changing from being about getting your knee down to being about having a ride with friends.”

“The industry needs to reposition themselves, and they’re not leaving any stone unturned. They are more open-minded about how to reinvent themselves than ever because the numbers don’t lie and they need to adapt.”

“We partnered with the X-Games in the last few years and our ratings are so high that ESPN have made us the opening act. There’s no one at the X-Games over 40 unless they’re someone’s dad, but our sport is dynamic and fits in well with their games.”

“ESPN has said that for the next games they want the twins to be on track, and not the dirt bikes, and that’s great for us. The biggest spikes we get are X-Games and Superprestigio. Motorcycles need not be an old man’s sport and we need to keep pushing for that.”

The calendar will also be shaken up for next year with 18 rounds on the calendar. The switch to twin-cylinder machinery in the GNC1 class likely necessitated an increase in longer tracks, but with six miles and seven half-miles on the schedule, it’ll be an exciting calendar.

The campaign will open in Daytona once again, but this time it will be a TT track rather than a short track. There is another new TT at the Buffalo Chip, along with a remodel of the fabled Peoria TT.

“We’re altering the geography of our calendar for next year because flat track had become very Mid-West/Mid-Atlantic centric. That’s where the heartland of the sport is, but we lost the sport on the coasts and those fans went to motocross or road racing.”

“Now though there is a curiosity towards flat track and restoring classic bikes found in barns.”

“There’s a link between the scrambler or cafe racer style bikes and flat track that started on the coasts in LA or New York, and now we need to bring the sport to those markets.”

“We have added new events in The South and Southwest but want to add events in the Pacific Northwest in the future. We’ll go to 18 events for next year.”

“We made a decision to build a purpose built flat track inside the [Daytona] Speedway. They’ve just spent half a billion dollars on the Speedway to make it into a palace.”

“It’s in our home town, and we’re owned by Jim France, so it seemed there might be a way to make it happen! We wanted to build something that would surprise people and Chris Carr, our competition director, said that it was the perfect time to build a TT.”

“We wondered whether it was smart to launch the new championship on a TT, but Chris said ‘the one that I’ll build will be awesome!’ The idea of a TT is that it’s not about the height of the jump, it’s about the technical nature of the jump. It’s about how you line up for it and how you land.”

“The TT that we’ve designed is 0.6 miles. For 2017 we’ll have three TT’s with Daytona, Buffalo Chip, and Peroria.”

“The event at Buffalo Chip will take place at the start of the Sturrgis Rally, and anyone that camps will have a free ticket for the race. We’ll open the Rally at the start of the week on Sunday, and then we’ll finish the week with our round at Black Hills. The races will be three days apart with one sponsored by Indian and the other by Harley Davidson.”

Making flat track a national success is hugely important. The series had become very Mid-West centered, and with more races on the coasts in 2017, it’s a first step towards finding new fans in the US.

Finding a way to make a night at the races a family event is key if the sport is to survive in the future. The American motorcycle industry isn’t getting younger, but the same reasons that attract everyone to racing are still present.

Seeing bike racing under lights of a Saturday night at the fairground with the smell and sound of racing motorcycles can still captivate an audience, you just need to find that audience.

The United States could be a battleground again for motorcycle racing. With the success of Supercross, the potential growth for road racing once again with MotoAmerica, and the potential resurgence of Flat Track, but rather than trying to cut a slice of the market it appears that there is a real determination to work together.

The world has changed a lot since the Daytona Motorsport Group purchased AMA Pro Racing in 2008.

The eventual dissolution that took place across US racing after the economic crash has taken longer to recover from than anyone expected. In the past, the France family have come under fire for their inability to play with others, however that could be changing.

“Wayne Rainey and the guys at MotoAmerica are trying a lot of creative things to restore interest in road racing in the US, but also to give a path to the world stage.”

“In the past, flat track gave you a leg-up for that, but that’s not the case any longer. We’ve talked to them about having a joint event with MotoAmerica, and we share a vision for the Daytona 200 in the future.”

“The Daytona 200 is a global brand, but it’s not what it was in the past. The first time I went was in ’94 and I thought to myself that I’d love if we had something like this in Europe.”

“It was a curtain raiser for the year and kicks everything off. It was absolutely unique. The role model for the Daytona 200 is the Isle of Man TT, that was an event that could have died but is now big business.” 

Making flat track and motorcycle racing big business in the US is a difficult, but achievable goal.

In an episode of The Wire, Slim Charles gives advice on changing times by saying, “the thing about the old days is that they’re the old days,” it’s a new dawn in the United States and there’ll be some growing pains.

The changes have been made for the right reasons, and now the series needs time for those changes to mature.

Photo: © 2016 Steve English – All Rights Reserved

Steve English

"Superbike Steve" is known best for his on-air hosting of the WorldSBK race feed, but when he's not looking pretty for the camera, he is busy writing stories and taking photographs for Asphalt & Rubber.